The 101 Guide To Digital Painting Hardware #1 Input Devices

(Originally published 12/12/2013)

An input device for a computer seems to be a no-brainer. Mouse, trackpad, keyboard all there but …err, wait what? A graphic tablet is missing or should I get a pen display?

This guide is based on my personal experience and opinion. I´m in no way affiliated with any of these companies and I try to be as objective as possible.

As an instructor, I often get asked what hardware, tablet or other input devices I use and what I´d recommend for someone just starting out.
Until 2013, I´d nearly always have said: “Go get a Wacom”, but the competition and the tablet market is developing so fast that there are more products out there than ever and artists can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume and opinions.

I will just offer some options and add a comment or two that may help you decide.

Let´s stick with the basics:

#1: The Mouse

Corpse bride by khrass
Artist: Khrass

Nothing beats the mouse when it comes to everyday tasks such as clicking, pointing, Office, Internet, scrolling, but it has some downsides; for digital painting, it is less usable. For occasionally doing 3D work, the mousewheel can be really helpful to navigate in a 3D environment.
I currently use a Sharkoon Fireglider, a cheap, quality option mainly designed for gaming. But if you have enough money, nothing beats the Microsoft Intellimouse Explorer in terms of durability. It costs around $100, but worth it.
However, there are some artists that feel very comfortable working with a mouse.  Khrass´s deviant Art gallery is empty nowadays, but god bless the archive! Not sure if that piece in particular was painted using a mouse, but the style didn´t change that much from earlier works, which creating digital art with a mouse can be done, but watch out for Carpal tunnel!

#2.: The Trackpad

The trackpad used to be an expedient for doing things on the go. Apple has done a lot with their Macbook trackpads since the iPhone and iPad evolved. Since they didn´t offer styluses for their tablets and phones – other brands jumped on that waggon and offer products that are also compatible with a trackpad. See the video for some example. It works with the Bamboo-pen from Wacom too.

#3.: The Graphic Tablet

That´s where most people actually start with which is totally understandable. It allows to work naturally with a pen on a surface, but there are some obstacles to keep in mind when considering to get one:

  • The brand does not matter so much, but don´t just settle for the cheapest. If the features are OK and the pen seems durable/ tablet has a warranty, then you are set.
  • Don´t fall for pressure sensitivity, between 1024 and 2048 there is NO noticeable difference. If it cost you twice, think twice.
  • It takes years to learn drawing on the tablet AND looking at the monitor. This synchronisation process will never be natural and you will not master it like drawing with pen on a paper. It is a totally different process that has to be learned from scratch like learning a new language.
Currently there are many brands available, but only a few that I would recommend checking for tablets if that is what you want:
Wacom, Hanvon, Aiptek, Monoprice

Wacom: Before you even think about getting a Bamboo, think about where you get a cheaper/used Intuos 4 because that is what you really want. The fancy bling bling of the Intuos5 or the Bamboo touch series is useless because touch from Wacom will never be as precise as the Trackpad gestures on a Mac, and any size above a6 is too expensive, too big and unnecessary.

Hanvon and Aiptek: Since I have only ever worked with Wacom, I can´t say much about the other manufacturers. What I do know from Hanvon is that they don´t care much about measurements, which means a 6″ tablet can be 6.2″ or a smaller equivalent. Also the features are more targeted at beginner to intermediate levels of artists/users I haven’t come across a great Aiptek review yet,  so if you´ve done so, please feel welcome to share it in a comment below!

Monoprice was a surprise, but fellow artist Ray Frenden´s review looks promising. Find the raving review here.

This list is by no means complete. As mentioned before, I can only pull from my own experience or from other sources that I trust. If you have a review or great experience with a product not listed here, I´d be glad to do some research and link it here.

#4.: The Pen Display

Pen displays are the shortcut for any artist to get the results that you are used to create with traditional media, OK, lets speak of pen and paper or pencil. Assuming you are able to use the programs right, these “Tablets” allow you to save years of learning to work with a tablet, believe me or not, the curve is immense. The main difference between these and a regular graphic tablet is that you draw directly on the screen, similar to working with a tablet, but more precise.

There are currently three brands for Pen display´s recommendable:

Wacom, Yiynova, Hanvon

Wacom Cintiq:


This is a no brainer; The Cintiq is the first thing that comes to mind when professionals speakof a pen display, but my personal feelings are a bit mixed, here´s why:
First off, Wacom has a really bad marketing strategy. They try to sell the larger Cintiq´s as HD, with resolutions that for any other 24″ display comes natively. 1920×1200 is not HD Wacom, sorry. Any 22″, 24″ and 26″ monitor can do that. So the only thing that really has HD is the 13″,
which would also be my recommendation. It is big enough to work out anything you want, durable enough, and lightweight enough to take it with you. Plus it is less expensive than the other models.

The SenTip from Hanvon might be a good alternative for artists to get started as they are probably cheaper, but  drivers can be buggy. Read some reviews before you decide to get one.



My feelings about this one are also mixed, the pricing is very low, but I´ve heard many mixed opinions and they´re not always good. The obvious cons are a battery driven pen, Walltop digitizers which are not as snappy as Wacom´s or the UCLogic ones that work great in OSX.
Ray Frenden has also another great review of the Yiynova MSP19U display. Not so obvious con´s are drivers that can be buggy. Find out more here on their website.

General advice for Pen Display´s:

From my own experience I can´t stretch enough how important it is to get screen protection. I recommend putting a glass over it, because scratches don´t come from the hand but through dust particles under the hard nibs. I learned this the hard way.

Personal Statement and Warning about Wacom´s Customer Service:
Just in case you think I´d recommend Wacom throughout the show, that´s not true, and here´s a personal story about the reason why:
When it comes to Wacom, I can say the products and delivery of products is great, however their customer support is really  bad. When I wanted to get a replacement cable for the Cintiq 13 HD to have one stationary to sit where my Ergotron arm holds it plusone to take with me for mobile use, you´d imagine that ordering such a replacement cable from their site would do the trick right? Nope. Lesson learned: What you see is what you get from Wacom, always!
I asked the customer support upfront if there is a power adapter included and I took their answer as a yes.
When I got the cable the power adapter was missing. I contacted customer support and have been waiting on a reply ever since. The rating for their store was reasonably bad, but that didn´t help me much. What would have helped would be an advice upfront, that the power adapter is not from Wacom itself. Research showed it is a universal AC power brick from Delta electronics that costs another 70 bucks. That should be stated on their site. Paying just 140 bucks for a second set of cables is insane.

#5.: Tablets and Tablet-PC´s

There are currently a few powerful Tablets and Tablet-PC´s out there that I would consider useful for an art professional. And I´m sorry to say that the iPad is not one of them. Yes it is there, but it is not a good solution.  That doesn´t mean it´s not useful for others, however.


Artist: Nikolai Lockertson

To start with the non-tablet, the iPad can be powerful with a pressure sensitive pen and the right application. Procreate has to be proven the best digital painting app by far and the Wacom bluetooth pen is a good addition. Nikolai Lockertson is a living example that with the iPad, great art can be created. However, I consider it useful to sketch or paint on the go and prefer the more powerful devices in the studio to get the refined work done, but that is just me.

Microsoft Surface Pro 2


The first tablet that I´d recommend is the Microsoft Surface Pro 2. The first one was promising, but the second one has improved with the digitizers. For the price, it sounds like a good iPad alternative with productivity potential. For more information, read the review from fellow artist Thierry Doizon aka Baronthiery.

Having the cover include the physical keyboard is a great approach  as this is what makes this thing usable when you are on the go.

Modbook Pro


The Modbooks have been around for a while. They started out with a service to convert original MacBooks into convertible tablets, now they produce them on their own using Apple parts. This  means you have Apple hard-and-software plus wacom technology, the counterpart to the Microsoft Surface Pro. However Microsoft also uses Wacom digitizers and both have 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity. The pricing, OS and some features may be the key differences here.

Wacom Companion

wacom companion

Wacom has the most levels of pressure sensitivity, but isn’t relevant because you´ll not notice a difference. The problem with the Wacom Cintiq Companion is that they advertise the touch feature and Windows 8, but it is actually Surface Pro with 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity.  Similar to the Surface Pro, the HD resolution that comes with 1920y1080 pixels makes the touch function nearly useless in Photoshop and most other applications because all icons are tiny – you´ll need a pen to “touch” them. Except for a swipe here or there to control Windows, it will not make a difference. From my point of view, a cheaper “without touch” product would have been genius, and a 15″ version with touch would have made more sense because more space for a bigger battery, but hey – that is Wacom.

I´ve made the order of the list above in terms of battery power and professional use. From experience, I know that working with the iPad can last around 8-10 hours, the Surface tablet can run quite well. If the modbooks run like the regular MacBooks, it can be 6 hours until you have to plugin the cable and the Cintiq with it´s I7 screams for the cable after 3 and a half hours – maybe 4h if you´re lucky.

If you are still interested in getting a Wacom Companion, Mike Daarken Lim has a nice review about it on his youtube channel, check it out.

#6.: Other & Experimental Devices

Leap Motion


Leap motion is a novel idea, but I guess it will take years of development until it can hit the consumer market like tablets today.

There is also Kinect and the technique Sony developed for the PS4. All of thislook good, but I suspect a usability fail, so it might be Okay to use something like that as a replacement for the mouse one day. But nothing can replace the pen-on-paper feeling.

Fluid Paint

Another avantgarde setup that will probably take years to be affordable or usable or both.

Selfmade Cintic

Not the first guy to do that and probably not the last one.

I suspect it is cheaper to get a Yiynova display and you have a warranty, just want to mention it in case you have thought about a DIY solution.

MaKey MaKey

And if you are more into performance art, fine art, whatsover, there is still the possibility to create your own device with MaKey MaKey.


I know, the best stuff is at the bottom. But hey, that´s life:)





About the Author Oliver Wetter

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